Making Community Investment a New Year's Resolution

The start of a New Year is typically a time for setting resolutions. For many, these resolutions might mean staying fit and healthy, becoming more organized or spending more time with family. We don't know if Congress makes New Year's resolutions, but in this spirit we thought we would suggest one: community investment.

The Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) has proven to be one of the most important tools we have for investing in communities. For over 40 years, royalties paid by oil companies on offshore oil and gas drilling leases have provided hundreds of millions of dollars per year, enabling states, cities and local communities to make dollar-for-dollar matching grants to protect parks and recreational resources. LWCF funding has benefited nearly every county in America, yet is set to expire in 2015. Congress should put LWCF reauthorization and full funding high on the agenda for 2014.

For the Latino community, LWCF is critical in the fight to eliminate childhood obesity. One third of all American children are overweight. The obesity statistics for young Latinos are particularly frightening. 40 percent of Latino children are overweight, and 50 percent are on track to develop diabetes. Creating safe parks and playgrounds through LWCF might help to reduce or reverse these trends.

As Salud America! a national program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, has reported, "Physical activity is important for good health, physical and cognitive growth and development, and maintaining a healthy weight." Hispanic kids ages nine to 13 are only half as likely to participate in organized physical activity outside of school; but the reason is these children often have limited options for physical activity. In a study cited by Salud America, 81 percent of Latino neighborhoods did not have a recreational facility, compared with 38 percent of White neighborhoods.

LWCF can help to address these disparities by creating safe, local parks and playgrounds. This in turn may help Latino children become more physically active and maintain a healthy weight.

Last year, the National Hispanic Leadership Agenda, a coalition of 30 leading national Latino organizations, sent a letter to First Lady Michelle Obama, asking for her leadership on LWCF on behalf of Latino communities. Access to local parks is important for the health of urban families and communities, and could be a centerpiece of the First Lady's Let's Move agenda.

Despite the LWCF's obvious benefits, the program has rarely been funded at the level that it was originally intended. Most alarming is Congress' broken promise to the American people to provide quality outdoor recreation resources for present and future generations. Nearly every year, Congress diverts much of this crucial funding to other uses. Since 1967, more than $17 billion from revenues designated for the fund have been diverted and used for non-conservation purposes. Congress should uphold its promise to the American people fully fund LWCF.

Although LWCF has provided billions of dollars for conservation and recreation, the vast majority of that funding has gone to federal projects, more than 80 percent in the past 25 years. This affects our communities and families. Financially-stretched state and local communities report an $18.5 billion backlog of park and recreation projects that await LWCF matching grants. A greater focus on community investment in LWCF funding is imperative.

Washington has the opportunity to make community investment a top priority in 2014. Reauthorization and full funding of the Land and Water Conservation Fund will be a step forward for our families and our communities. It's one New Year's resolution worth keeping.

By Brent Wilkes, LULAC National Executive Director and Jose Calderon, President of the Hispanic Federation